The passage of California’s Proposition 227, ending bilingual education, has
shaken the school establishment and sent minority-rights advocates rushing to
court. But all the post-election jockeying should not divert state and federal
officials from the underlying reality: Bilingual education, at least as
offered in California, was not working and needed to be fixed. It’s too bad it
took a potentially harmful citizens initiative to get that message through.
If California officials have any doubt about the problems, they need only
ask the children and families their program was designed to serve. At the
start of the primary campaign, a clear majority of Latinos favored Prop 227.
While that support dropped in the end, four of every 10 Hispanic voters, and
an even higher percentage of black and Asian voters, supported dismantling the
program in favor of one year of “English-immersion” classes.
Their reaction – that bilingual education too often fails to teach what
students must know – has evidence to back it up. In California and elsewhere,
non-English speaking students learn subjects in their native language as they
slowly gain competency in English. In theory, the bilingual program is
supposed to be a bridge to mainstream classes. In practice, however, far too
many immigrant children languish in “language limbo” for years, studies show. At the other extreme, some kids are forced into the program even though English is their primary language. Why? The more children the schools place, the more federal money they get.
It’s no wonder some in Congress are concerned. Recently, a House committee
voted to bar schools from keeping kids in bilingual programs for more than
three years. Inflexible cutoffs are not the solution, but at least the
problems are starting to get attention.
Policymakers may find some answers in the Miami-Dade County schools. Though
not without problems, Miami-Dade’s “English for Speakers of Other Languages” program emphasizes the need for teaching English from Day One. While students receive about 20 percent instruction in their home language, the goal is to teach English early. Most students are placed in regular classes within three years. Contrary to what some critics contend, this emphasis on teaching
English has nothing to do with intolerance toward diversity. It has everything
to do with giving students the language skills they need to succeed.
It is unfortunate that California residents had to go to such lengths to
make that message heard. Citizen-referendum is no way to set classroom policy,
and there is little guarantee the method selected by voters will improve on
the status quo. Students will now get one year of intense English instruction,
after which they will be moved into regular classes.
While Prop 227 devotes millions of extra dollars toward tutoring, that may
not be enough to help students who might drown in California’s new “sink or
swim” approach. California has defined the problem. Now it’s up to educators
and concerned citizens to come up with the solution.